The Race To The Cup Is On: Julien’s Next Team Vs. Sweeney’s Bruins

By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) – Did the Bruins do Claude Julien a favor?

Even without knowing where his next job will be, Julien might’ve moved closer to winning the Stanley Cup than the Bruins are to challenging for it at this stage in general manager Don Sweeney’s plan.

The Bruins rained on Julien’s plan by firing the franchise leader in coaching wins Tuesday.

Julien, who led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup championship in 2011 and an Eastern Conference title in 2013, is going to land another job. Assuming he doesn’t decide to “Viva Las Vegas” he’ll probably be the man a contending team turns to after a disappointing playoff failure this spring. He could push an underachieving club over the top in 2018.

On the other hand, the Bruins won’t have to worry about an early playoff exit because they probably won’t be in the postseason. They’ve overachieved under Julien and it’s unlikely they’ll turn it around enough under Bruce Cassidy, if all you do is figure that the teams around the Bruins have too many games in hand to not pass Boston.

It was difficult to decipher many of Sweeney’s responses to questions about the reason for firing Julien. Sweeney and Cassidy talked about picking up the pace at practice, but otherwise said they weren’t going to do a heck of a lot to change the systems. Other than the addition of Peter Cehlarik from Providence, there weren’t personnel changes at practice. There were a couple line changes, but nothing out of the ordinary. And Sweeney even sounded like a GM who hadn’t fired his coach.

“If the goaltender doesn’t play well, is that necessarily on the coach? If the goalie plays well but the team doesn’t score, is that necessarily on the coach? No it’s not,” he said. “It’s on myself and the players themselves that need to accept that responsibility that we need to have a better player in that situation or players step up and improve their own play.”

Beyond Sweeney’s comments deflecting blame from Julien, the GM also said a lot of things about evaluation and not deviating from his plan. He wants to make the playoffs but the future is most important to Sweeney.

That’s probably why Sweeney he said he wasn’t ready to commit to “a longer-term basis” with Julien. If the GM has the support of president Cam Neely and ownership to endure some mediocrity with promise of sustainable success in the near future, as long as he doesn’t admit he’s rebuilding, Sweeney can afford to go the route where he uses all his draft picks and doesn’t make a trade for almost a full year. Julien, with just one more year left on his contract, probably figured he wasn’t going to be afforded the same leeway as Sweeney and wanted the GM to solidify the lineup now. If the Bruins have five or six first- or second-year pros in their lineup now and there are going to be more coming in the years ahead, that’s going to lead to a lot of growing pains and not enough victories to sustain a coaching career.

“I’m not going to sacrifice the players that we feel are important and integral to how we get better,” Sweeney said. “But if there’s an opportunity to improve our hockey club with a long-term view then that’s what we will do.”

Don’t expect any rentals at the trade deadline and don’t expect any trades of the Bruins’ top prospects or core players unless Sweeney is absolutely certain he can hit a home run. That’s not how the GM role is supposed to work, but it’s what the Bruins have decided to do.

That’s a plan for a team that’s not going to contend for at least a couple years.

Not to get too far off track, but one has to wonder if Sweeney’s plan is really going to come to fruition. Even if Charlie McAvoy is the second coming and Danton Heinen lights the world on fire at some point, the Bruins are going to need time to grow. They’re going to need able-bodied veterans in the lineup to tutor the kids and they’re going to need a coach to respect the players as well as teach them. They’re also going to have to make some decisions about these prospects because not all of them are going to live up to the hype and not all of them can play in the same lineup. And by the time the prospects are ripe for contributing in the NHL, just how much will the likes of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and David Backes have left in the tank?

But moving back to Julien, he showed a willingness to work with what Sweeney gave him this season. Although they have a mediocre record and offense in the bottom third of the League in goals scored, the Bruins obviously made the proper tweaks to their system. They managed to get back into the top 10 in defense for much of the first four months of the season and they lead the League in shots per game. There are players not meeting their expectations and Sweeney has provided the roster with an untenable backup-goaltender situation. None of these things were Julien’s fault. But the Bruins have been able to stay in the playoff structure because they’ve played the most games in the conference, and because they had one of the smartest coaches.

Sweeney obviously didn’t see it that way. He thinks better of this roster and wants to see if the coach was the problem. The two-week, new-coach boost just might be enough to get the Bruins into that eighth and final playoff spot come April. That’ll add to the Causeway Street coffers.

More likely the Bruins will continue to be the same inconsistent team and miss the playoffs again. Then the Jacobs family will have to decide if they’re going to keep riding the Sweeney plan. That could mean a contending Bruins team will take the ice sometime before the end of this decade or ownership could decide to start over the push off contention into the 2020s. Sometime before then Julien’s new team might be having a championship parade while a football coach is getting fired.

Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets.

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